Lost in the turbulence of a market focused on fraud charges against Goldman Sachs (see Rant of the Day: No Ethics, No Fiduciary Responsibility, No Separation of Duty; Complete Ethics Overhaul Needed), there are some interesting derivatives blowups in Europe to consider, similar in nature to swaps that blew up Jefferson County, Alabama.
Please consider Saint-Etienne Swaps Explode as Financial Weapons Ambush Europe
The worst global financial crisis in 70 years arrived in Saint-Etienne this month, as embedded financial obligations began to blow up.
A bill came due for 1.18 million euros ($1.61 million) owed to Deutsche Bank AG under a contract that initially saved the French city money. The 800-year-old town refused to pay, dodging for now one of 10 derivatives so speculative no bank will buy them back, said Cedric Grail, the municipal finance director. They would cost about 100 million euros to cancel today, he said.
Saint-Etienne is one of thousands of public authorities across Europe that tried to shave borrowing expenses by accepting derivatives deals whose risks they couldn’t measure. They may be liable for billions of euros, according to the Bank of Italy and consulting and law firms in France and Germany. As global economies climb out of recession, the crisis is hitting Saint-Etienne in central France, Pforzheim in western Germany and Apulia, an Italian regional government on the Adriatic. They may pay for their bets into the next generation.
From the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific coast of the U.S., governments, public agencies and nonprofit institutions have lost billions of dollars because of transactions officials didn’t grasp. Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agreed last year to pay more than $900 million to terminate swaps that assumed interest rates would rise.
Under the interest-rate swap deals popular with European municipalities, a bank would agree to cover a locality’s fixed debt payment and the government or agency would pay a variable rate gambling its costs would be lower — and taking on the risk that they could be many times higher.
Use of swaps in Europe soared in the late 1990s and early 2000s because banks pitched them as the easiest way to reduce costs on fixed-rate loans, according to Patrice Chatard, general manager of Finance Active, which helps more than 1,000 localities across Western Europe manage their debt.
The financial institutions that sold the derivatives were many of the same ones that received government bailouts to weather the worst global credit crisis since the 1930s.
“These municipal swaps are the same thing as Greece,” said Fruchard, a former banker at Credit Lyonnais, now a unit of Credit Agricole SA, who designed swaps in the early 1990s. “It’s all trying to dress up your accounts.”
Germany, Italy, Poland and Belgium also used derivatives to manage fiscal deficits, Walter Radermacher, the head of Eurostat told EU lawmakers in Brussels yesterday without being specific.
Municipalities are having to rewrite their budgets. Saint-Etienne raised taxes twice, slashed by three-fourths a plan to renovate a museum commemorating the region’s extinct coal mining industry and sparked the cancellation of a tram line. Pforzheim, on the edge of the Black Forest in Germany, is scrimping on roads, schools and building renovations.
The town followed the advice of Deutsche Bank in taking out bets on interest rates in 2004 and 2005, according to Susanne Weishaar, Pforzheim’s budget director until March.
For cities like Saint-Etienne, the risks from buying swaps were out of proportion to the potential savings.
“This isn’t traditional asset management,” Fruchard said in reference to swaps based on currency moves in general. “It’s speculative, like a hedge fund. And it’s done in bad faith. An elected official who takes the benefit from the guaranteed low rates without understanding what happens after his mandate ends is acting in bad faith.”
Accounting rules in Europe help keep derivatives deals hidden. Most local governments have no obligation to set aside cash against potential losses, and reflect only current-year cash flows in balance sheets.
“It’s only transparency that will make elected officials scared to invest in dangerous products,” said Jean-Christophe Boyer, deputy mayor of Laval, in western France, which has swaps covering about 25 percent of its total debt of 86 million euros. “Even if we banned them today, the impact is coming now, tomorrow and 10 years from now,” he said, because of the number of derivatives contracts still in force.
For more on how swaps recommended by JPMorgan destroyed Jefferson County, please see Jefferson County Alabama Considering Bankruptcy.
This is a huge story with many participants, and one of longest articles I have ever seen on Bloomberg. It’s well worth a closer look.
Also take another look at the actions required by two of the many cities mentioned.
Saint-Etienne raised taxes twice, slashed by three-fourths a plan to renovate a museum and sparked the cancellation of a tram line. Pforzheim, on the edge of the Black Forest in Germany, is scrimping on roads, schools and building renovations.
Those who think derivative blowups will be inflationary need to think again.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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